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For the thousands of travelers who intended to fly on Southwest Airlines during Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples Day weekend — but instead had their flights canceled — no amount of advance planning could have guaranteed a smooth arrival. Instead, even the most proactive planners were left scrambling to book last-minute flights on other airlines.
While you shouldn’t necessarily wait until the literal last minute to book, the latest Southwest calamity is additional proof that travel in the COVID-19 era is wildly unpredictable.
What’s more, this is one example of a situation where — while advance holiday travel reservations were almost imperative pre-pandemic — they’re less essential now. In fact, booking holiday travel too far in advance can be limiting rather than freeing these days.
Here’s what to think about as you consider the ideal time to make your holiday plans.
Pro: Airfares are almost always cheaper when booked early
A spring NerdWallet analysis of over 1,110 flights found that airfares were 24% more expensive on average when booked two weeks versus six months out. Sure, you’ve missed that six-month window for the holidays, but at least you’ve got more than two weeks if you take action now.
Average economy class cash airfare
15 days out
180 days out
Con: Hotels (especially luxury resorts) aren’t always cheaper when booked early
While airfares are generally cheaper when booked early, a different NerdWallet study of more than 2,500 hotel room rates in 2019, 2020 and the first half of 2021 found it was cheaper 66% of the time to book hotel rooms 15 days out versus four months out. That rises to an even starker 73% of the time when looking at 2021-only data.
If your holiday travels involve an upscale resort, here’s an even bigger reason to wait: The cost at the highest-end hotels averaged 22% cheaper when booked 15 days before versus four months out.
Pro: You’ll beat out the procrastinators and have access to more favorable dates, routes and times
Even if you’re banking on a last-minute airfare deal that may or may not actually materialize, don’t overlook the opportunity cost of procrastinating. Sure, the lavish five-star hotel might have tons of rooms it needs to offload at a deep discount, but even five stars at half price might be too expensive for your budget.
Meanwhile, delaying booking only makes it more likely that the hotel within your budget has been sold out.
Con: You might accidentally lock yourself into ever-changing or unfavorable policies
Many airlines now offer free changes or cancellations, though often it’s in the form of an airline credit. While that’s a huge improvement over consumer-unfriendly pre-pandemic policies, you could find yourself stuck with a flight credit that’s tough to use.
For example, in the recent Southwest debacle, the airline offered to rebook passengers — but only on other Southwest flights (which wasn’t exactly helpful, given most other flights were unavailable anyway). While some airlines have reciprocal or interline agreements with other carriers where they’ll place you on one of their flights should yours get canceled, Southwest doesn't.
Or maybe you booked with a regional carrier. If you cancel your trip but have no intention to fly to that region anymore, you’re stuck with worthless credits.
An airline credit is certainly better than nothing, but it still isn't as valuable as if you had never booked in the first place — and kept your cash in the bank.
Pro: You have a plan (and now you can start making your backup plan)
Locking in flights and hotel rooms now gives you at least some semblance of a plan. And once you’ve got a plan, you’re free to move on to step two: a backup plan.
Familiarize yourself with other nearby airports or hotels that you can book should something with your existing plans go awry. Look into not just rental cars, but also prices for rideshares or alternative car rental companies. Because if there’s one thing to be certain about with 2021 holiday travel, it’s that nothing is certain.
Con: In the COVID era, a lot can happen in two months
Remember when we were told it would just be two weeks to stop the spread? Then, there was hope travel would resume by summer 2020, only to postpone that optimism to the 2020 winter holidays?
Now it’s the 2021 winter holidays, and some areas are still experiencing challenges like rising case rates, which could cut your desire to travel.
On the other hand, many things are returning after more than 18 months of closures. As airlines add flights, it might be better to wait so you can book a more favorable route. As entertainment venues add showtimes and restaurants open more reservations, waiting means you might snag tickets to the show you actually want to see or a table at the time you want.
The bottom line
You might opt out of travel given that crowds are growing. Plus, more international travel brings an uptick in reports of vaccinated Americans testing positive abroad and unable to return home. Travel is still not necessarily the stress reliever you may be hoping for anyway, so holding off on solidifying plans isn't necessarily bad.
Then again, the conventional wisdom says to not put off what you can do today. Waiting can increase your odds of higher prices plus fewer booking options. Throw in the fact that vaccinated international travelers can enter the U.S. as of Nov. 8 and competition to book will likely only increase.
There are good reasons to book now, but there are worthy reasons to wait. And if you opt out of booking completely — well, there’s always a staycation.
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